The second half of the LaBute New Theater Festival at St. Louis Actors' Studio presents three new compelling and well-crafted works that, while not always wholly satisfying, are thoroughly entertaining and sneakily provocative. The scripts address interesting contemporary ideas without stepping on soapboxes; they also refuse to definitively answer the questions posed. I find all three scripts present situations that persist in my mind, causing continued reflection in a way that good art often does.

The first show of the night is Neil LaBute's Hate Crime, directed by John Pierson, which was also featured in part one of the festival (a more in-depth look at this play can be found in my previous review). The show introduces us to a couple plotting the wedding day murder of the younger man's current fiancé. It's frighteningly intense and uncomfortable at times, and a second viewing gives more insight but doesn't resolve questions regarding each character's true motivation. If anything, the play engages even more when you know what's going to happen and can concentrate on all the little tells and actions that simultaneously perplex and intrigue.

How's Bruno, by Cary Pepper, smartly directed by Nancy Bell, is a wonderfully clever comedy anchored by an outstanding performance from Spencer Sickmann, who's expertly supported by Reggie Pierre, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, and Chauncy Thomas. The story is completely absurd, with just the right amount of plausibility. 

Sickmann's character glibly responds to an errant text he receives, triggering a series of surrealistically comic actions and reactions from the other characters that feel pulled from Men in Black. Similar to Waiting for the Erie Lackawanna from part one of the festival, the play captivates with its verbal dexterity. There's an abundance of everyday expressions turned to cryptic clues and implied significance for common actions. The clever premise wears a bit thin before the conclusion, however, but the play is quite enjoyable and the actors commit fully to the intentionally vague and spuriously connected storyline.

Sickmann comes across as completely natural and appropriate, while the rest of the cast is highly stylized, and frequently speaks in riddles. The dichotomy works to good effect, for the most part, and is enhanced by the sense of something sinister. The premise here is compelling and the performances a well-balanced exercise in innuendo and implication, but the show wanders without a true conflict and would benefit from a more fully developed plot. The set up is great, and I really want to dig into the mystery, but I need a little more information. Additionally, the last line of dialogue either needs to be completed or dropped. If included, it feels important that we know what coffee Sickmann's character orders. 

Tearrance Chisholm strikes a chord close to home with Sin Titulo, directed by Linda Kennedy. The story is set in St. Louis and examines the aftermath of the recent election, the tendency to medicate rather than treat psychological disorders, and some of the harsh truths of life when you're black. Chisholm introduces and explores relevant topics that could each be the focus of a play, yet they feel intrinsically entwined in a realistic and natural way. The longest show the festival has produced to date, it could easily be expanded into a full-length, two-act play.  

Reggie Pierre is sympathetic and relatable as a former campaign manager wrestling with a sense of inertia and ineffectiveness following the presidential election. His wife, played with just the right strength and sensitivity by Patrice Foster, feels powerless to shake her husband's malaise, but she's willing to try anything. Her brother, played with an easy authenticity by Jaz Tucker, shows up at their door unexpectedly and throws a much-needed monkey wrench into their routine. The politically and socially infused show isn't neat and tidy, and that's what works; though the ending could use some rethinking.

There were a few other aspects of the show that puzzled me, as well. It's not clear why Pierre's character decides to take Tucker's prescription pills, though they initially seem to spur him to action. That confusion is compounded when Foster takes one of the pills and simply falls asleep. Pierre delivers an excellent monologue on finding himself stuck in Chesterfield, with a dead phone battery and not enough cash to get home. The perspective that moment affords him, a black, well-educated man, is understated but nonetheless hits a nerve. I only wish some of Tucker's paranoia regarding the mysterious organization known as Sin Titulo was as well articulated (though audience members familiar with the comic series may have a better grasp of the concept). 

This year's LaBute New Theater Festival, running through July 30, 2017 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is the most wholly satisfying yet. The plays are well written, if a bit over indulgent at times, and the performances are sharp and compelling. Though they may benefit from a little tightening, the three plays featured in part two deliver intriguing, thought provoking theater. 

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